8. The Tao of Despatch

TRD issue 42 – February 2001

February 2001 saw the first incidents of foot and mouth in the UK for twenty years. Within two days of the outbreak, the EU had banned all exports of British meat, milk and livestock. Aside from the devastating cost to the farming industry caused by the slaughter of nearly four million animals, tourism was also badly hit as large sections of the British countryside were ‘closed’ for months.

This month before I started off on another of my hippy meanders, I thought I’d give Roger a call to check if there was anything in particular he’d like me to ramble about. As it happened, he’d just had a conversation with the owner of a small West End company and suggested I follow it up. Apparently they’d had to get rid of a rider, because he was such a merchant of gloom he was dragging the whole firm down. In an industry where “Ability to whinge and moan” would appear to rate alongside “Comprehensive knowledge of London” as an essential prerequisite for the job, I couldn’t help thinking he must have been a seriously rainy Monday.

I phoned Roger’s contact and he agreed to get back to me when he had more time – but he never did. Perhaps it was all too depressing and he didn’t want to have to think about it again. Phoning around various friends and associates, I got the impression that a significant slice of the industry seems to be whistling quietly to itself, while desperately trying to avoid thinking what the first symptoms of clinical depression might be. Why, I wondered, weren’t there more despatch riders displaying the trademark fly-spattered teeth of the happy biker? Traffic may be heavier and certainly techno speed enforcement is becoming more intrusive month on month, but for someone who wants to avoid the regular 9 to 5, riding a motorcycle in one of the world’s major capital cities still has to be the card on the Job Centre board with the bright flashing neon lights surrounding it.

But if that’s the case why have recruitment and retention become such problems? Could it be that for far too long recruitment was so easy that retention was never really an issue? And what’s happened to slow down the steady stream of fresh young riders who can’t believe their luck? There used to be shedloads of them and some of them were good for anything up to five years before the lustre began to wear thin. Maybe now that there are other jobs out there (albeit soul-destroying shit ones) they give up before they get through the often over-long introductory period, where they’re expected to do shit singletons to shit postcodes, while the established riders trawl from Hammersmith to Hoxton with bulging panniers? Then again, it could be a simple thing like the crippling insurance premiums younger riders have to gamble with.

One thing is certain, the closer you look, the more rational reasons you can identify to account for the problem. But what if you stretch the point and look outside the sensible options? Couldn’t it be the age of the business itself? Let’s face it, it’s very much an in-the-moment kind of trade and there’s nothing like thirty years of living for the day to bring on a nasty case of mid-life crisis (with associated angst about the pointlessness of it all). So I got to thinking that perhaps what’s needed is a little spirituality. Now, before Mr Ainsworth reaches for his quill, I should point out that having been raised on a staple diet of the kind of Christianity he liberally sprinkled with vitriol last month, I knew exactly where he was coming from (although I was a teenager before I became disenchanted with the sort of hypocrisy he highlighted; so his comments made me wonder if he was a pagan from birth, or did he become a ‘born again’ pagan on the road back from Damascus?). Personally, it took me until I was twenty before I scrubbed round the metaphysical and arrived at a kind of existential nihilism. Of course it never occurred to me that that was what it was then, because, “What the fuck?” was as close as I got to articulating my feelings at that time. I hadn’t heard any of those ‘big’ words and even if I had, I’d have had no idea what they meant. I suppose it just seemed to me that scientific explanations (or hypotheses), while they might be suspect in all sorts of ways, still worked better than the dogma I’d been force-fed as a child.

Although I came to this attitude relatively late, I quickly realised that under those circumstances, riding a bike was the only sensible thing to do. If there is no God, no Heaven and no Hell; no right and no wrong; in fact nothing but ‘the big sleep’ to look forward to, why wouldn’t you live for the moment? And how better than as a DR? If you’re determined to live every day as if it might be your last, few jobs can really claim to deliver that possibility as reliably as yours. Even bomb disposal officers aren’t out there on a daily basis, dabbing their sweating brow while they wonder whether to cut the red or the blue wire; whereas you constantly have to make life or death decisions that can be every bit as crucial as knowing which wire to clip. When a car just pulls straight out on you, you decide instantly whether to accelerate and squeeze in front of it, or brake and go for the gap that should appear if he doesn’t suddenly stop when he sees you. It’s the constant threats that keep you sharp and (as long as you get it right) they just feed the buzz.

Juicer, while explaining once again why a DR union ain’t never gonna happen, described the massive attraction of living in the here and now; and how it allows you to ignore everything from George W. Bush to the nagging nightmare of your constantly mounting tax liability. Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse (and preferably another 32 payments on your bike). Yeah, rock ‘n’ roll! The trouble is of course that, in spite of the best efforts of other road users and abusers, most of us live way beyond our ‘best before’ date.

“Live every day as if it’s your last” is a good solid maxim, but it can result in some really nasty reality checks if you have too many last days and you’re still around when it all goes pear-shaped. Like so many pearls of Western wisdom, it hits a spot, but it really doesn’t say enough. By contrast the philosophic ruminations of Eastern sages tend to offer a broader, more holistic view; a Chinese version would surely add: “…But bear in mind that you may live for a helluva long time.” It’s only a small ‘but’, but a morsel for thought nonetheless.

There’s nothing like a little Zen parable (or bastardisation thereof) to illuminate some small aspect of the meaning of life. David Morgan’s contribution in last month’s letters pages was a perfect example. While, as is often the case, it was tossed away in a light-hearted manner, at its heart lay a profound truth. I love things like that, because most of what I know about Eastern thinking has come from the kind of sources that any serious scholar would dismiss as trashy. Which may well be true; nonetheless calendars from Chinese take-aways, the 70s TV series “Kung Fu”, and even my little ‘un’s book of world religions, have all given me serious pause for thought at one time or another.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with my theory that the industry is slipping into mid-life crisis (and you’d have every right to), but stick with me, I’m getting there. Once you reach an age where the days you were enjoying one at a time begin repeating themselves – in particular the shitty ones – and any attempt to pass yourself off as a young beautiful corpse would be enough to make a mourner giggle; that tends to be the time when a lot of folk start searching for something more.

As I said above, I’d had my share of ‘guilt trip religion’ in my youth, so becoming ‘born again’ wasn’t really on my list. I don’t mean any disrespect to anybody’s religion if they’re serious about it – anyone who truly lives their life with a “do unto others as you would have done unto you” attitude has my utmost respect – but, like I say, I’m with A.A. when it comes to Christmas Christians. It’s interesting to consider something Bob Pirsig said in Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “…doctrinal differences among Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism are not anywhere near as important as doctrinal differences among Christianity and Islam and Judaism. Holy wars are not fought over them because verbalised statements about reality are never presumed to be reality itself.” OK the last bit explains why lots of people give up on his book, but he’s got a point.

When Stevie Wonder sang, Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away in 1974, I wasn’t feeling particularly spiritual, but I knew where he was coming from. Later, when I read little bits about Buddhism and Hinduism there was that sort of idea again; of God or spirituality being something inside of you, rather than something you plug into at your local religious franchise. The trouble with all that was, besides being a raw steak-eating leather-wearer, when I considered the sort of shit I’d put in it, I wasn’t sure I was entirely comfortable with the idea of my body being a temple. I couldn’t help imagining a dilapidated ruin with dirty clothes scattered all over and plates and mugs growing penicillin in the corners. Lots of stuff to think about though. I heard a cassette by a very clever Trevor named Krishna Murti. He propounded that Man is the only living thing that considers the concept of time passing; and we know that all the time it’s passing we’re dying. But when we are totally absorbed in something, time fades from our consciousness, taking with it any preoccupations we may have about our mortality. Which sounded like the perfect rationale (if I needed one) for the sort of motorcycle riding I enjoy most.

The trouble with B & H (no, not the fags) was that they were a little too religious and demanded to be taken seriously. When I realised that reaching Nirvana took more than simply humming to yourself while you smoked a joint, I knew I wasn’t about to renounce all my material goods (including my bike!) so I filed away some of the more illuminating ideas they’d provided me with and carried on. Then I came across The Tao of Pooh, which uses Winnie the Pooh (plus Eeyore, Christopher Robin and the rest of the crew) to introduce the reader to the principles of Taoism. If it sounds bizarre to present a fluffy yellow teddy as an analogy for a philosophy, which is almost two-and-a-half thousand years old, so be it, but it worked for me. OK, it’s not the most ‘cred’ of books to whip out while you’re standing-by in Great Marlborough Street but just like Winnie himself, it’s chock-full of simple wisdom.

What appealed most about the snapshot of Taoism it gave me was that it didn’t actually require me to do anything. I didn’t have to subscribe to anything or give anything up; I didn’t even have to start chanting or praying 16 times a day. It was simply a series of truths that were so self-evident once set out, that arguing against them would be as fruitful as trying to beat up an expert in Tai Chi. Of course that may just be my impression and I may have arrived at it because it was what I wanted, but if it hit a spot for me how bad can that be?

Essentially Taoism teaches that wisdom requires an acceptance of life’s inevitable changes, while accepting that eliminating one’s desires and aggressive impulses and following “The Way” will lead to a long and tranquil life. But it’s not a question of following a prescribed route, it’s more a case of ‘going with the flow’ in a more considered way. For me, Sinead O’Connor’s plea: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” would find its answer in Tao Te Ching.

Traffic lights are a perfect example of something you can’t change. The usual traffic cycle (from green to green in your direction) is between 24 and 120 seconds, with the average around one-and-a-half minutes. It doesn’t matter how much you rev, or if you clench your teeth till your brain aches, they won’t change any sooner. The same goes for slow days. As long as your controller is giving you a fair shout, there’s no point in giving him or her grief, it simply doesn’t help. Whereas if the controller is taking the piss, that’s something you can change. But, and you know this is true, the more considered you are and the calmer you are when you deal with the situation, the more satisfactory the outcome is likely to be (unless of course you’ve already decided that a good kicking is the only option, but that’s hardly going to increase your earning potential).

I’ve thought for a long time that if I were to give in to my good intentions and take up some form of exercise, Tai Chi would be a lot more ‘me’ than jogging or aerobics. It’s the one that looks like a slow-motion karate workout and I’d seen people from nine to ninety-nine doing it alone or in groups in various public places. What I had never realised, however, was that Tai Chi was also a form of self-defence. My basic understanding of it is that while exercising you are practising all the moves in perfect detail, so that if somebody attacks you, you simply speed everything up and your aggressor is left trying to work out why he keeps bouncing off you as if you’ve got a force field round you. I’m sorry, but from where I’m at in the fullness of my years, that strikes me as the epitome of cool.

So if I ever get around to doing anything that requires an ongoing commitment Tai Chi will be it – but another time maybe. That’s the great thing about my interpretation of Winnie the Pooh’s explanation of Taoism. He didn’t tell me what to do with my life, nor to feel guilty about the things I know I shouldn’t be doing, or the things I should be doing but haven’t got around to yet. All he said to me was ‘If there’s stuff in your life that’s bothering you, take an honest look at it, and if challenging it is less trouble than continuing as things are, why not sort it?’ And if it’s a big thing and you can’t be bothered, that’s cool as well; roll another one and take it easy. Just ‘go with the flow’ and follow The Way as best you can.

So where exactly in all that garbled nonsense is my advice for the Despatch industry? What exactly are those of you who are wondering if Prozac will really make you better than well supposed to glean from all this waffle? Truth is I’m not sure, which is why it’s all over the place. That’s the trouble with the East – they’re all so fucking inscrutable that nobody gives you a wink to say you’ve got it right. It’s not about having all the answers, it’s about understanding the questions.

However, if all that’s a bit too enigmatic, the short version is quite simple really: lighten up. Controllers, how much empathy do you convey to your Leyton-based rider when his 6.30pm pick up going to Walthamstow turns out to be a Wimbledon? Riders, when was the last time you hugged your controller? And what about you, owners, when did you last take the whole fleet out to thank them for keeping you in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed? Hello? And you’re wondering why things are getting a little tetchy?

You’re all travelling around all day, why not make a unilateral decision to spread a little happiness as you go? Or then again don’t… the choice, as always, is yours.

Be careful out there

Carin’ Sharin’

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